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Justin Higgins

Mrs. Bouch

Honors English 11

8 January 2018

Scarlet Letter Symbol

In almost every way, Puritans have been one of the harshest groups of Christianity,

especially when it comes to their punishments. Criminals could be killed, whipped, or branded

with hot irons. Puritans even punished lazy servants and disobedient children with punishments

like these. In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hester Prynne commits adultery, and

her punishment, although less harsh than other possible punishments, was a major part and

symbol of The Scarlet Letter. Hester was forced to stand on a scaffold for three hours in public

and wear a scarlet letter “A” on her chest for the rest of her life. The Scarlet Letter is a symbol of

both Hester’s shame from her adultery and of the redemption she achieves from her sin, and the

letter is a large part of the book to show how it is possible to be redeemed from one’s sin.

The scarlet letter is a symbol of the guilt and shame of Hester’s adultery. The Puritans

force Hester to wear the letter for the rest of her life. This is done to mark her for her sins and to

act as a constant reminder to her and others of her sin. The Puritans want Hester to be forever

shamed and embarrassed by herself and others for her sinful adultery. This painful guilt from the

letter can be seen especially when Pearl interacts with the scarlet letter. When Pearl is first being

fully introduced, Hawthorne tells of how, as a young child, Pearl touches the letter, and “gasping

for breath, did Hester Prynne clutch the fatal token, instinctively endeavoring to tear it away”

(66). When Pearl touches the scarlet letter, Hester’s guilt is so overwhelming and painful that

Hester immediately pulls herself away from Pearl. Hester is truly relieved of this painful guilt
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and shame in the forest with Dimmesdale, when she removes the letter. Hester and Dimmesdale

decide to leave Boston for England, so Hester removes her letter and throws it to the ground.

When she does this, Hester feels relieved of the guilt and shame she has felt for the last seven

years, and she becomes happy and beautiful (139). Soon after, when Hester puts the letter back

on for Pearl, her happiness and beauty fade, and she returns to how she was before the letter was

removed (145). The Puritans were successful in using the scarlet letter to cause Hester immense

guilt and shame, but they were not able to prevent her from being redeemed from her sin.

Although the scarlet letter is a symbol of Hester’s guilt and shame, it is also a symbol of

Hester’s redemption from her sin. Years after her adultery, the townspeople begin to see the

letter’s meaning as “able” instead of “adultery.” After committing adultery and being publicly

shamed, Hester began to do charity work around the town, treating and making clothes for the

sick and homeless. Several years later, the townspeople began to respect Hester for her deeds, so

they saw the letter’s meaning as “able.” When Hester returns to Boston as an old woman, her

letter becomes looked upon with grace and holiness. She is so hardworking and selfless that the

townspeople no longer cares about her sin. The townspeople even come to Hester for advice and

council, since Hester is so strong, hardworking, and selfless. Because Hester’s sin is publicly

displayed to all through her scarlet letter, she is able to avoid the fate that Dimmesdale suffers.

Dimmesdale is unable to confess his sin until the end of the book, so he is tortured by his guilt

and shame. Hester does not have to worry about confessing, because of the scarlet letter. If

Hester’s sin is a secret like Dimmesdale’s, she may not be able to be redeemed from her sin. The

scarlet letter shows that Hester is able to be redeemed from her adultery, and the book focuses on

how Hester is able to overcome her sin, while Dimmesdale is not, because he does not confess.
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The scarlet letter is a large part of the book because it shows that it is possible to be

redeemed of sin, even if the sin is terrible, like adultery. Throughout the book, the Puritan’s view

of Hester changed drastically, and in the beginning of the book, Hester is shamed and hated by

the townspeople, but as the story goes on, they begin to respect Hester and treat her fairly.

Shortly after she is shamed on the scaffold, even the poor and homeless who Hester helps, treat

Hester poorly, and the scarlet letter is seen purely as a sign of Hester’s sin and impurity. This is

strongly contrasted by how, at the end of the story, the townspeople seek advice and council

from Hester when she returns to her cottage as an old woman in the end of the story, when the

townspeople see the scarlet letter as a sign of Hester’s grace and goodness. In the beginning of

the story, Hester’s guilt and shame cause her much pain, especially if the scarlet letter is

involved, but by the end of the story, Hester is able to live happily with the letter as a part of her

life. When Hester is first released from prison in the beginning of the story, she must deal with

her new, horrible guilt and shame that her sin has brought upon her, so much that she feels that

“the accumulating days, and added years, would pile up their misery upon the heap of shame”

(54). Hester believes that her guilt and shame will build as time goes on, so she believes she will

live a life full of pain and sorrow. This pain can be especially seen when Pearl touches the letter,

and it causes Hester immense pain and guilt, so much that Hester pulls away immediately. Hester

is able to eventually overcome her guilt, pain, and shame to live a happy life with the letter. She

even returns to her old house and spends much of her time helping others, especially by advising

and counseling others. These townspeople even come to see her letter as a sign of Hester’s grace

and goodness, instead of a sign of her sin. Throughout the book, the effects of the sin on Hester

and Dimmesdale are contrasted. Hester is able to eventually overcome her guilt and sin because

of her public confession and shaming, while Dimmesdale is not because his sin is kept secret
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until his death. Although Hester’s consequences for her sin at first are worse than Dimmesdale’s,

Hester successfully works to become a better person and overcome her guilt, but Dimmesdale is

increasingly tormented by his guilt as time goes on. The scarlet letter is at first a main source of

Hester’s guilt and pain, but as time goes on, it becomes a sign of her goodness. Dimmesdale

chooses not to confess his sin until his last moments on Earth, and in the time he keeps his sin a

secret, his guilt is so powerful that he tortures himself. As self-punishment, Dimmesdale whips

himself and goes through extended fasting and vigils, which, combined with his terrible mental

state from his guilt, cause his physical illness and ultimately his death. Hester‘s fate is much

different because of the letter and her public exposure. She is able to be redeemed from her guilt

and pain, and she is able to live happily with the letter, and besides her adultery, she lives a good

life, spending much of her time doing charity work. With the scarlet letter, this book is able to

show that redemption from sin is very possible, especially if one confesses their sin.

The scarlet letter is a major piece of the story told in The Scarlet Letter. The scarlet letter

shows Hester’s great shame for her sin her ability to come back from her and live a good life. It

is used as a clear way to show Hester’s transformation from a plain guilty, shameful sinner into a

strong woman who has redeemed herself from her sin with good actions. It is used to convey the

main message of the book: one can be redeemed from their sin through confession and penance,

which is an idea that strongly conflicts the beliefs of the Puritan society that forces the scarlet

letter upon Hester.


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Works Cited

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. Edited by Stanley Appelbaum, Dover Publications,

Inc., 1994.